Azar Nafisi is an enthusiast. In the epilogue to her book, “The Republic of Imagination,” she states that she began her analysis (but, really, celebration) of American literature intending to write about 24 books. She ended up choosing three: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “Babbitt” and “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.” In these works by Mark Twain, Sinclair Lewis and Carson McCullers, she finds the essence of the American experience, filtered through narratives not about exceptionalism or fabulous success, but alienation, solitude and landscape. Her argument is compelling, but more than that, her pleasure in these works is contagious. If you haven’t read them recently — or ever — you will find yourself picking them up and commencing, and perhaps when you finish them you will not agree with Nafisi’s ideas, but you will have engaged in just the sort of literary quest that she believes is essential for informed citizenship.
Nafisi is best known for her 2003 bestseller, “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” in which she wove together reading and memoir and produced a compelling argument about the role of literature in repressive societies as an exercise in freedom and self-realization — especially, but not solely — for women. “In “The Republic of Imagination,” she asks whether reading in the United States — where no books are banned by the federal government (although some are censored by school districts and libraries) and the greatest threat to culture is indifference — is an equally political act. Her authorswould have said that it is, but the tide they are rowing against is not usually that of the government, but the much more sluggish, heavy current of cultural norms such as racism, consumerism, conformity, prejudice against gays, and casual cruelty in the name of individual rights. (Another author who inspires her is James Baldwin, the gay African American exile, alternately celebrated and condemned by those who might have been his allies.)
I am guessing that of all her choices, “Huckleberry Finn” is Nafisi’s favorite. She reads Huck’s journey down the Mississippi with Jim sympathetically and delves deep into Twain’s oft-stated abhorrence of slavery. Huck’s antagonist, in Nafisi’s reading, is Tom Sawyer, a character who represents flashy but ultimately conformist rebellion against social norms. Tom is Huck’s betrayer by way of Jim. Huck’s only refuge is his friendship with Jim. I would say that Huck fails to be political because Twain doesn’t know how to make him so; Nafisi would say that Huck fails to be political because politics itself fails — she dismisses Harriet Beecher Stowe in two short pages as writing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” “for a political and social purpose.” “Rather than let the characters do the work,” she writes, Stowe “intervenes and desperately at times tries to persuade the reader of the heinous nature of slavery.”As usual with critics, Nafisi overlooks the amazingly brave character of Cassy in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” focuses on Little Eva and says nothing about Stowe’s success in motivating political change through art.
Threaded through Nafisi’s reading of “Huckleberry Finn” is the dramatic and sometimes devastating tale of her friend and fellow Iranian American Farah, who, like Nafisi, returns to Iran from the United States when the Shah is deposed, expecting to work for positive change. Perhaps the most sobering line in the “Huckleberry Finn” chapter is this one: “ ‘Within four years of that day,’ Farah said, ‘All but one of my friends who came with me on that plane [back to Tehran] were dead.’ ”
In the chapter on “Babbitt,” Nafisi discusses conformity and questions the apparent indifference of American politicians (especially those on the right, but also those on the left) to the development of critical thinking skills, curiosity and empathy. Noting that it is writers, musicians, teachers and artists who are imprisoned by totalitarian regimes, she asks, “Why do tyrants understand the dangers of a democratic imagination more than our policymakers appreciate its necessity?”
Nafisi understands that perhaps in this day and age the United States is a republic in imagination only. In her discussion of McCullers’s eerily prescient depiction of a small Southern town where violence and foreclosure are the norm, where a child shoots another in the head by accident, where dreams die, where no one can connect, where all political ideas are the preoccupations of rejects and weirdos, she sees real possibility in the fact that McCullers’s characters finally take responsibility for themselves instead of depending on Mr. Singer, a sympathetic deaf-mute who has killed himself in despair. I don’t, but I hope she is right.
Will Americans be as willing to take to heart a book that puts us on the spot and asks of us the same serious questions that Nafisi asked of the regime in Tehran? We are more spread out than Iranians, more thoughtless, more susceptible to the marketing of ignorance, perhaps — especially in an election season. But read it. It will do you good.
Jane Smiley’s latest novel is “Some Luck.”
On Friday at 7 p.m., Azar Nafisi will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Call 202-364-1919.
THE REPUBLIC OF IMAGINATION
America in Three Books
By Azar Nafisi
Viking. 338 pp. $28.95